Total Miles: 157.3
They were right there. The same place they always were. At least until—apparently—they weren’t. The mittens that had been dangling from my sternum strap were nowhere to be found. Not exactly the start to the morning you dream about.
As I trotted back along the trail hoping to find them and berating myself in the process, I looked up to see something that has been in very short supply: another hiker coming southbound. His name was Tony, an older man from Tampa, Florida, who tilted forward under the weight of his pack in a way reminiscent of Atlas holding up the world. Affable, if not especially talkative, I asked if he’d happened to have seen a pair of black mittens in the trail. Before I could finish the sentence, he produced them from his pocket. My reversal of fortunes complete, we walked southbound together back to where I’d left Ace waiting. We chatted only for a minute before saying our goodbyes, knowing we’d likely see each other down the trail again soon.
Around the same time, the ponderosa forest that had blanketed so much of the trail thus far aside from the Grand Canyon began to morph into a mixture of piñon pine and juniper, many of which were more shrub than tree. Grassy, open spaces pried apart the shrubs which had the effect of transporting us to the wide open spaces that had been our nearly constant companions on the Continental Divide Trail last year.
It also afforded us a view of the lone cluster of mountains rising far in the distance from the otherwise featureless Coconino Pleateau. Standing just north of the city of Flagstaff, the San Francisco Peaks are the remnants of a dormant volcano, and are home to the 6 tallest peaks in the state of Arizona.
We’d first laid eyes on the San Francisco Peaks from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, some 130 trail miles away, rising dramatically from the flat plateau in a way that makes you wonder whether what you’re looking at might, in fact, be nothing more than a mirage.
But the pointed summit of Humphreys Peak, the tallest among the San Francisco Peaks and in the state, dusted as it was with snow was no mirage. Seeing it inch its way higher into the sky as we inched our way closer to it, it became our de facto North Star. Like a sailboat tacking back and forth with the breeze, the trail alternated between a heading that put Humphreys on our starboard only to have it on our port minutes later.
Marking our progress toward Humphreys, and to our next resupply in Flagstaff along with it, we didn’t mind the exceedingly flat stroll along the plateau. The local denizen, however, seemed quite confused by our presence...
Without much change in scenery to speak of, it was a day of simply making forward progress, our two shadows, growing longer with each passing hour, merely insignificant dots on a vast and empty landscape.
With nothing but flat expanse, finding a place to call home is easy here. We rose out of a shallow but massive depression just as the sun was falling low on the horizon, a row of clouds scattering the final rays of light while a gleaming crescent moon rose overhead. Without a soul or a sound for miles, a flat spot not twenty feet off the trail would be our home, facing the North Star that had faithfully guided us all day.